Tips to Prevent Issues with Toxoplasmosis
By Lorie Huston, DVM
Toxoplasmosis is almost always a concern for pregnant women. Some doctors even go so far as to advise pregnant women to get rid of any cats in the household, which can easily lead to panic and grief over losing a beloved companion. With the proper precautions, getting rid of the family cat is not necessary. Some simple safeguards are all that you need to protect yourself and your family from toxoplasmosis.
It is also worth remembering that the family cat is not the only, or even the most likely, way for a pregnant woman to become exposed to toxoplasmosis. The chance of getting toxoplasmosis from your pet cat is pretty slim if your cat lives indoors and doesn’t hunt or eat raw meat. In fact, you’re more likely to get toxoplasmosis from eating unwashed vegetables from your garden or undercooked meat than you are from your pet cat.
What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is caused by a protozoan (one-celled) parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii. The disease can be passed to people through contact with cat feces in the cat litter box. Exposure is also possible through contact with contaminated soil or raw meat.
Healthy, immunocompetent adults infected with toxoplasmosis typically suffer only a mild flu-like illness or no symptoms at all. However, when a mother becomes infected with toxoplasmosis during her pregnancy, her unborn child can become infected with toxoplasmosis via the placenta. Dangers to an unborn child from toxoplasmosis include birth defects and fetal death.
A woman infected with toxoplasmosis prior to becoming pregnant does not pose a threat to her unborn child. Only women who are infected with the parasite during the course of their pregnancy are at risk.
Precautions for Pregnant Women Worried About Toxoplasmosis
While it’s not impossible to be exposed to toxoplasmosis through your cat’s litter box, most people are infected through other means. As mentioned above, most people are infected through contact with contaminated soil or through eating raw meat contaminated with Toxoplasma oocysts.
Fortunately, cats that become infected with toxoplasmosis shed the organism in their feces for only a short period of time. This means that most cats that are infected with toxoplasmosis will shed oocysts—the infective stage in the life cycle of the Toxoplasma organisms that causes toxoplasmosis—for only a few days.
In addition, even if your cat is shedding the organism, it takes a minimum of 48 hours for the oocysts to become infective. Cleaning the litter box daily prevents transmission. The use of proper hygiene is one of the cornerstones of preventing infection. Washing your hands after handling your cat’s litter box and/or wearing gloves when cleaning the box also prevents transmission of the disease.
Keeping your cat indoors is a good way to prevent your cat from becoming infected with toxoplasmosis. Also, avoid feeding your cat raw meat and do not allow your cat to hunt. These practices will remove the possibility of exposure of your cat to toxoplasmosis.
Still, taking precautions to avoid exposure to potential toxoplasmosis in the cat litter is a good idea for any pregnant woman.
- If possible, a pregnant woman should not change the cat litter box and should avoid contact with cat feces. Ideally, another household member should change the cat litter box.
- If a pregnant woman does find it necessary to change a cat litter box, she should wear gloves when doing so and wash her hands thoroughly afterward.
- The cat litter box should be cleaned on a daily basis. Toxoplasmosis cysts in the litter box require 48 hours to become infective.
- Pregnant women should wear gloves when gardening or working in soil or sand, as it may have been used by neighborhood cats and contain cat feces.
- Pregnant women should also avoid handling or ingesting raw meat. Wearing gloves while preparing meat and washing hands thoroughly after preparation can also help avoid infection.
- Any foodstuffs from the garden (fruits, vegetables, herbs, etc.) should be washed thoroughly before ingestion.
- Pregnant women should wash their hands before handling or eating any food.
- Do not feed the cat raw meat during your pregnancy.
- Keep your cat indoors.
- Cover your children’s sandboxes when not in use to prevent neighborhood cats from defecating in them.
These simple precautions can help a pregnant woman avoid infection with toxoplasmosis from contact with cat feces or from the cat litter box; and can protect her unborn child from the dangers of toxoplasmosis.